Seven teams have already booked their slot in the knock-out stages of South America's Copa Libertadores. Another seven have no chance of making progress -- meaning that going into the final week of the group phase, eighteen clubs are fighting for the remaining nine places.
The format of the competition changed in 2017. Previously squeezed into the first few months, the action now takes place across the calendar year -- ending a little earlier this time because of the World Cup. There is no doubt that the change has benefited the continent's two biggest leagues. Brazilian teams, especially, and Argentine sides have dominated the competition in the last five years, supplying all the winners and runners-up, and with the exception of Ecuador's Barcelona last year, all the semifinalists as well.
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And this pattern has been repeated so far in 2022. The seven who have qualified with a round to spare are drawn exclusively from Brazil and Argentina. There is the Brazilian trio of Palmeiras, Flamengo and Atletico Mineiro, who dominated last year's competition and threaten to do the same this time. There is River Plate of Argentina, one of their likely challengers, along with a dangerous Estudiantes side, pragmatic and with occasional flashes of talent. And there are two sides from the Argentine provinces who aspirations are more modest. Neither Colon of Santa Fe nor Talleres of Cordoba are likely to win the trophy, but they are enjoying the ride.
Missing from this list are two of the pre-tournament favourites, the teams who a decade ago contested the title -- Corinthians of Brazil and Argeninia's Boca Juniors. They are in the group that will close the action on Thursday night, and find themselves in contrasting situations. Current Brazilian league leaders Corinthians are all but qualified. They host one of the weakest teams in the competition, Always Ready of Bolivia, and a draw is good enough to secure their slot. A Corinthians defeat would be one of the biggest shocks in the long history of the competition.
Boca, meanwhile, lifted the Argentine domestic title on Sunday, but are now under pressure. In a direct contest for a place in the last sixteen, they must win at home to Deportivo Cali of Colombia. Boca are still without their sharpest attacking weapon, Colombian winger Sebastian Villa, who is suspended. They have often had to grind out results of late, and now must do so against an opponent who will defend in depth and break out on the counter.
Cali only went down 1-0 away to Corinthians -- where an own-goal decided the issue. Now they promise to bring the group phase to a tense conclusion. Colombian football could certainly do with a boost. The national team, of course, failed to make it to the World Cup, and since the 2016 triumph of Atletico Nacional the country has been through hard times in the Libertadores. Now Cali have a chance of reaching the last sixteen -- as do Tolima, the best Colombian side of the past couple of years. They travel to Brazil to meet Atletico Mineiro needing a draw to be sure.
A loss by Cali would open the door to Independiente del Valle of Ecuador, who would then qualify with a win at home to the already eliminated America Mineiro of Brazil. The other Ecuadorian representatives are Emelec of Guayaquil, the city that will host the final on October 29. Despite a patchy campaign, Emelec can be confident of making the cut. They need to win at home to Independiente Petrolero of Bolivia, perhaps the weakest side in the entire field. This will only not be sufficient in the extremely unlikely event of Venezuela's Deportivo Tachira winning away to Palmeiras, the champions in both the last two years who have won all of their matches so far in this campaign.
Some groups call for the help of the calculator. Three teams are chasing a single slot in the group already won by Estudiantes. The task of Nacional of Uruguay is straightforward. They must win at home to Brazil's Red Bull Bragantino, and hope that Estudiantes are not beaten by fellow Argentines Velez Sarsfield. And if Velez fail to win, a draw is good enough for Bragantino. If both Velez and Bragantino win, then it will come down to goal difference, with the Brazilians holding the advantage at the moment.
And there is a group where all four teams still have a chance. Just a point separates them. Libertad of Paraguay and Brazil's Athletico Paranaense have one more point than the opponents who visit them this Thursday. A draw, then, is good enough for them. Caracas of Venezuela go to Brazil and Bolivia's The Strongest go to Paraguay in search of a win.
And a couple of groups have boiled down to contests of glorious simplicity. Colo Colo of Chile are level on points with Brazil's Fortaleza. But, after going down 4-0 last week to River Plate, the Chileans are at a disadvantage on goal difference. They have to win. They have home advantage -- but, in a punishment for supporter misbehaviour, the match will be played behind closed doors.
One game which is guaranteed a special atmosphere is the derby between the traditional Paraguayan big two, Cerro Porteno and Olimpia on Wednesday night. One of the most potent ingredients in their long rivalry is their contrasting fates in the Libertadores. Olimpia have won the competition three times, and style themselves as "the cup kings."
Cerro Porteno have accumulated frustrations. They have reached the semifinals six times, but have never gone beyond. This time, though, they hold the advantage. Olimpia must win by two goals to put themselves in front of Cerro Porteno and grab a slot in the last sixteen. This would need a significant improvement on their last meeting. Olimpia and Cerro Porteno faced each other on Sunday in the Paraguayan league, with Cerro Porteno winning 4-0. Just three days later, Olimpia will go in search of a radically different result as Paraguay's big derby takes on a continental dimension.